The Best Day Trips from Santa Fe - High Road to Taos and Valles Caldera

A view of Battleship Rock from NM 4, en route to Jemez Springs // Photo by Kerry M. Halasz

A view of Battleship Rock from NM 4, en route to Jemez Springs // Photo by Kerry M. Halasz

Sometimes getting there is just as rewarding as being there. These two stunning drives will have you oohing and aahing at every mile marker. Load up your gas tank, charge your camera’s batteries and get ready for two more world-class jaunts from The City Different.

The High Road to Taos: Red Chile and Regal Vistas

The 76-mile back-roads trek from Santa Fe to Taos is a cultural and geographical feast for the eyes. Wend through high-desert badlands and climb the paved switchbacks of the Sangre de Cristo mountain range’s pine-dotted peaks. Stop off in restored arts communities and explore the religious heritage of some of the oldest Spanish settlements in the western U.S.

And don’t worry: There are plenty of delicious eats along the way.

Begin your journey by following U.S. Highway 285 north. About 17 miles outside Santa Fe, turn right onto Route 503 just north of Pojoaque Pueblo. Follow the two-lane road as it curves northeast and opens up to stunning vistas of the high desert, with craggy hoodoos rising from the fractured earth.

Crosses hang in El Santuario de Chimayo // Photo by Kerry M. Halasz

Crosses hang in El Santuario de Chimayo // Photo by Kerry M. Halasz


In 10 miles, you’ll hit Route 76. Hail a left for a quick – and rewarding – detour to Chimayo, an unincorporated village of 3,000 residents that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors each year – including up to 40,000 pilgrims during Holy Week alone.

The main draw is El Santuario de Chimayo, a tiny chapel built in 1816. Church lore holds that in the early 1800s a local friar looked up to see a beam of light shining from a hillside. The source of the light was not immediately apparent, but when he dug into the earth, he found a crucifix. Residents marched the artifact to a nearby church, only to find it back in the dirt on the hillside the next morning. After two more attempts to remove it ended the same way, they decided to build a small chapel on the site. The dirt from whence the crucifix came is now seen as holy and curative. Together with a statue of Santo Nino de Atocha housed nearby, it has made Chimayo one of the most significant pilgrimage sites in the United States.

After visiting the Santuario, stop in at one of the town’s renowned family-owned weaving shops. The Chimayo style, defined by two sections of stripes and a center design, grew out of the Rio Grande and Saltillo styles in the early 20th century. Ortega’s Weaving Shop and Trujillo’s Weaving Shop are prominent outfits. Both are worth a visit.

Nestled in a fertile valley beneath the Sangre de Cristo foothills, Chimayo is celebrated for its heirloom red chiles. Rancho de Chimayo, the culinary jewel in the village’s crown, is the perfect place to please any spice fiend’s palate. At this traditional New Mexican eatery, the red is exceptional, and the ambiance is cozy. The restaurant is housed in a historic adobe ranch home just up the road from the town’s main drag.

Truchas & Las Trampas

Heading east on Route 76, you’ll climb to 8,000 feet above sea level. Atop a ridge sits Truchas, an even smaller village with an even grander view. Park “downtown” and take a short walk to the edge of the ridge and take in a panoramic view of the Espanola Valley below. Or head to the other side of town and gaze at the staggering Truchas Peaks. Truchas is surrounded by beauty.

It’s no wonder artists have made Truchas their home. During a quick jaunt through town, stumble into the handful of galleries. Settled by Spanish families in the mid-18th century, Truchas had dirt roads until the 1970s. Aside from its views and a handful of funky arts depots, the village’s main claim to fame is its featured role in the 1988 Robert Redford-directed film The Milagro Beanfield War. Truchas served as the film’s backdrop.

Continue northeast into the Carson National Forest, where you’ll wonder at the sea of undulating green peaks surrounded by high desert. In Las Trampas, don’t miss San Jose de Gracia Church, built between 1760 and 1776. With its thick adobe walls, ornamented vigas and carved-wood trim, it is considered one of the best-maintained examples of Spanish Colonial Mission architecture in New Mexico.

A few miles up the road in the arts community of Penasco, grab a bite at the Sugar Nymphs Bistro -- a vibrant café that some diners claim offers the best eats on the High Road. Chef Kai Harper Lea cut her teeth at San Francisco vegetarian treasure Greens. Sugar Nymphs utilizes local ingredients to create fresh, flavorful American fare. (Think goat cheese salad and veggie grilled cheese.) Just keep an eye peeled for the mural-clad façade on State Road 75.

Talpa & Ranchos de Taos

In tiny Talpa, the charming church of Nuestra Senora de San Juan de los Lagos del Rio Chiquito is worth a quick stop. Then, when you get to the intersection of 76 and 518, head straight for a quick detour up to Sipapu. The drive is divine, and there are plenty of hiking trails along the way if you need to stretch your legs.

Backtrack along 518 and hail a right at the fork to continue toward Taos (instead of heading back on 76). In the traditional agricultural village of Ranchos de Taos, don’t miss the famous San Francisco de Asis Church, oft-photographed by Ansel Adams and oft-painted by Georgia O’Keeffe. The window-less geometric facades of the structure’s backside – favorite subjects of O’Keeffe’s – are especially striking.

Head north on 68, and you’ll be in Taos’s historic plaza within minutes.

The Details:

El Santuario de Chimayo: 15 Santuario Drive in Chimayo / (505) 351-9961

Ortega’s Weaving Shop: Corner of County Road 98 and NM 76 in Chimayo / (505) 351-4215

Trujillo’s Weaving Shop: 814 NM 76 in Chimayo / (505) 351-4457

Rancho de Chimayo: 300 Juan Medina Road in Chimayo / (505) 351-4444

San Jose de Gracia Church: 2377-2381 NM 76 in Las Trampas / (505) 351-4360

Chapel of Nuestra Senora de San Juan de Los Lagos de Rio Chiquito: Highway 518 in Talpa

Sugar Nymphs Bistro: 15046 State Road 75 / (575) 587-0311

San Francisco de Asis Church: 600 St. Francis Plaza in Ranchos de Taos / (575) 758-2754


Valles Caldera and Jemez Springs: A Once-Molten Landscape

Valles Caldera // Photo by Kerry M. Halasz

Valles Caldera // Photo by Kerry M. Halasz

Get a taste for New Mexico’s transformative volcanic past with a jaunt down the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway. Wend through fertile valleys with dramatic red-rock cliffs on either side, wade in natural hot springs or hike the stunning Valles Caldera. Your senses with thank you.

Valles Caldera

Looming on the skyline about 40 miles west of Santa Fe, the lava-formed Jemez Mountains are a veritable geological treasure trove. The biggest gem in the haul? Valles Caldera. This massive grassy depression, surrounded by undulating green peaks, was formed more than 1 million years ago when the series of still-active lava flows lurking beneath the surface erupted, causing the earth to fall in upon itself.

Today, the fertile caldera is home to herds of grazing elk and cattle. Hiking trails wend into the surrounding mountains and stop off at breathtaking overlooks. Be sure to visit the well-preserved ranching cabins. Surrounded by miles of open space, you’ll find yourself feeling like a 19th century pioneer.

To get to the visitor’s center from NM 4, turn right at the sign and follow it deep into the caldera. Be sure to check park schedules in advance. Preserve staffers still are getting settled in a new facility.

Jemez Springs

About 30 miles down scenic Highway 4 from Valles Caldera sits Jemez Springs, a village of 375 residents named for nearby Jemez Pueblo. The village, surrounded by a series of stunning hot springs, is an excellent jumping off point for hiking excursions and cultural sightseeing. And its restaurant scene is not too shabby either.

On your way to the town, stop off at Battleship Rock, a fractured, flat-topped formation that looks like it could be cutting through the canyon en route to its next port. Turn into the parking lot at mile 26.5 for a better view. If you’re feeling energetic, head out on a 6.8-mile hike to beautiful Jemez Falls. You’ll pass McCauley Warm Springs on the way. It’s one of the many springs in the region, a testament to the volcanic activity still bubbling below the earth’s surface.

About two miles outside of Jemez Springs, you’ll hit Soda Dam, a bowler hat-shaped red rock formation surrounded by red scrub brush-spotted hills. Closer into town, stop off at the Jemez Historic Site. There, you’ll find the remains of a 17th Century Franciscan mission, including a redbrick church with a rare octagonal bell tower and colorful frescos. An interpretive trail wends through the seven-acre site.

Ruins at Jemez Historic Site // Photo by Kerry M. Halasz

Ruins at Jemez Historic Site // Photo by Kerry M. Halasz

Jemez Springs is the ideal spot to replenish a tired body after a long hike through the mountains. Quirky Los Ojos Restaurant & Saloon is Wild West kitsch done right – that is, as long as the sight of taxidermy-ed animal heads doesn’t offend. The wood-paneled walls of Los Ojos are covered in 10-point bucks, elk heads and bear pelts. Many are strung with Christmas lights. The bar is well-stocked, the service is friendly, and a fire is likely to be raging in the massive lodge-style fire place. If you’re up for a gastro-challenge, order the Los Ojos Special, an open-faced burger smothered in French fries and red and green chile. Not for the feint of heart.

The Details:

Valles Caldera: 39201 NM 4 in Jemez Springs  / (575) 829-4100

Battleship Rock: 4 miles north of Jemez Springs on NM 4 / (505) 438-5300 for Santa Fe National Forest headquarters

Soda Dam: 2 miles north of Jemez Springs on NM 4 / No phone number

Jemez Historic Site: 18160 NM 4 in Jemez Springs / (575) 829-3530

Los Ojos Restaurant & Saloon: NM 4 in Jemez Springs / (575) 829-3547